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Migrant Nation

Texas Ag Commissioner fueling fronteraphobia

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Gilbert Salinas, vice president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council, says the city continues to combat rumors that spillover violence has rendered the region lawless and out-of-control. “We're at the point where people are now willing to associate any crime that happens to what's happening in Mexico,” he said. “It's the easy narrative that comes to mind, it's the easiest and quickest thing to jump to whenever a crime occurs here on the border. … The fact is, we're not a war zone, and if that was the case, people would be moving out of this region left and right,” he said, while citing Brownsville's 25 percent population boom over the past decade.

During the press conference announcing the new report, one of its authors, former Clinton-era “Drug Czar” Barry McCaffrey, claimed hundreds had been murdered on the Texas side of the border, far outpacing the 22 killings over the past year cited by the Department of Public Safety as being cartel related. McCaffrey referenced statements from a Brooks County rancher, who claimed hundreds of bodies had been found in the county in recent years. The Brooks County sheriff's department later told the Austin American-Statesman the bodies were likely those of undocumented immigrants who died in the brush trying to avoid the nearby Falfurrias Border Patrol checkpoint, not victims of any violent attack.

Staples' new report essentially advocates ramping up militarization of the border, insisting border counties are already part of a war zone, even drumming up counter-insurgency strategies from campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The political and media frenzy over supposed spillover violence has become a nagging concern for Val Verde County, which borders the Rio Grande near the hub of Del Rio, said Sheriff Joe Martinez, even though, as he puts it,  “I'm not aware of any of our landowners on this side being threatened.” With greater frequency, Martinez says he fields calls from up north asking whether Val Verde County is still safe for hunting, fishing, and travel. Many, he says, have simply stopped coming.

Referencing Staples' report, Martinez said, “People see this stuff in print, they see it on television. You have other elected officials making comments on what the border is like. … I know it's affected our economy on both sides of the border, even though I know things here are safe.”

Further west in Hudspeth County, Sheriff Arvin West has taken a different approach. About an hour southeast of El Paso, West famously told ranchers at a town-hall meeting in April to arm themselves to prep for spillover violence. “As they say the old story is, it is better to be tried by 12 than carried by six. Damn it, I don't want to see six people carrying you.”

Roughly a month later, Norberto Velez and his son Norangel were shot by a nearby rancher named Joseph Denton when they got lost and made a wrong turn onto his property. Norangel Velez told El Paso's KTSM-TV, “The only reason he shot is because he saw that we're Hispanic. He thought we were immigrants. We're not immigrants. I was born here. I've lived here all my life.”

Sheriff West failed to return several calls for comment.

West has his small rural corner of the frontera, but Staples, with statewide reach, has a much louder bullhorn. Let's hope that in stirring up more fear he doesn't spark more gunplay.

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